Gearing up against drink and drug driving – proposals for safer roads, was the theme of the conference organised by the Malta Insurance Association in conjunction with the University’s Department of Insurance last month.

It was opened by the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Capital Projects, Ian Borg (under whose ministry the Malta Road Safety Council falls) and the Minister for Family, Children’s Rights and Social Solidarity, Michael Falzon, whose ministry had launched the National Alcohol Policy late last year.

Delegates were also addressed by Madam Justice Consuelo Scerri Herrera and other local and foreign speakers who shared their experiences of how drink/drug-driving could be deterred.

The judge explained what the laws state and the reasons behind the relatively high number of acquittals, most of them a direct consequence of ill-prepared prosecution or evidence compilation.

She also expressed some very strong opinions on the need to better enforce existing laws and improve effectiveness.

One of the two foreign speakers, Brett Harman, representing the Global Road Safety Partnership – GRSP, gave participants a highly-interesting insight into how drink/drug-driving was tackled in Australia.

The other speaker, Frank Mutze, a representative of the European Transport Safety Council – ETSC, gave an overview of the situation and best practices in Europe.

These presentations made it clear the police can only stop a motorist and demand a breathalyser test when they observe erratic or abusive behaviour on the road.

In many countries, the police were given stronger powers than this, allowing them to also carry out tests at random, for no specific reason. Also, in many countries such tests are mandatory when an accident involving personal injuries occurs.

As regards drug driving, Malta lacks sufficiently clear laws that define what constitutes driving under the influence of drugs while the police are not equipped to carry roadside tests similar to the breathalyser used for alcohol.

Richard Muscat spoke about the harmful effects that alcohol leaves on the body and how the risk of an accident increases dramatically when legal alcohol limits are exceeded, even marginally.

The best results can only be achieved if education and enforcement work together

Education and greater awareness of the risks of drink/drug-driving can be a very effective tool to combat this problem but motorists need to change their approach to drinking and those riding with them must also play a part in making the driver feel responsible for their safety.

From an insurance perspective, whether a driver that caused an accident was intoxicated or not can certainly contribute greatly to reducing the length of time it takes a claim to be processed and for compensation to be paid to victims. On the other hand, uncertainty prolongs the process as insurers often need to await the outcome of magisterial inquiries or criminal proceedings to determine the facts.

The Malta Insurance Association believes that the level of enforcement needs to be improved and this can be helped by changes to the law. We now know that an average 165 tests were conducted during 2017, giving an average of two tests every five days. Worse still, assuming that the 15 kits donated by the association in late 2015 are all still in use, 165 tests is equivalent to 11 tests per kit, less than once a month.

These figures are undoubtedly disappointing and worrying as they indicate that enforcement is not as effective as it can be. Without proper enforcement the deterrent value of any anti-drink/drug-driving laws is severely diminished.

The law needs to be updated to bring drug testing on a par with alcohol testing. A clear direction is needed by the government and, in line with lowering the alcohol limits in 2017, a zero-tolerance vis-a-vis drug-driving is needed.

Testing for alcohol and/or drug abuse is not different to having fixed or mobile speed cameras that deter speeding.

Speed cameras on our road network seem to be acceptable because they rake in several thousand euros in fines. However, breathalyser tests, which save lives in the same manner as speed cameras do, do not seem to be accepted.

The Malta Insurance Association encourages further investment in deterrent, including more breathalyser kits as well as kits to test for drug consumption. Easy-to-use and affordable roadside drug-testing kits are available and are in widespread use by police forces in many EU states.

The police can only improve their effectiveness if more resources are available to them, including specialised training.

The difficulty of the task they face in having to deal with individuals who may be driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs and who are facing the prospect of a combination of heavy fines and licence suspension, not to mention the possibility of spending the night locked up, should not be underestimated.

Finally, awareness campaigns need to be stepped up and held throughout the year, rather than focused on the festive season, because alcohol and drug abuse happens all year round. Still, the best results can only be achieved if education, through awareness campaigns, and enforcement work together.

There are resources that must be tapped into, so it is only a matter for the authorities to show commitment and set their priorities right, as part of the national agenda, if road safety is to be truly upheld.

Adrian Galea is director general of the Malta Insurance Association.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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